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Deborah Levy’s foremothers and heiresses

Discussed in this essay:
The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography
, by Deborah Levy. Bloomsbury. 144 pages. $20.

“To become a writer,” Deborah Levy wrote in her 2014 memoir Things I Don’t Want to Know, “I had to learn to interrupt, to speak up, to speak a little louder, and then louder, and then to just speak in my own voice which is not loud at all.” Levy was born in 1959 in South Africa. When she was five, her father was imprisoned for his opposition to apartheid; Levy was “practically mute” for nearly a year. Her learning to speak up was thus not merely metaphorical: every writer has to find her own voice, but not every writer will have first lost it so completely.

Perhaps it is natural for those who find speaking difficult to become writers: If you could say exactly what you want, when you want, the way you want, then what would be the point of writing? Levy has written six novels, two of which were nominated for the Man Booker Prize, and a number of plays for the BBC and the Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as poems, short stories, and a libretto, but she began publishing memoir only in her fifties. One might see all this fictional work as a prelude to the day she could speak in her own voice, in a true first person.

When, not long ago, she left her husband of twenty years, a friend offered her a shed in her back garden and made sure that no one interrupted her there so that she could write. “To be valued and respected in this way, as if it were the most normal thing in the world, was a new experience,” Levy tells us in The Cost of Living, her new memoir, the second in a projected trilogy. “It was there that I would begin to write in the first person, using an I that is close to myself and yet is not myself.” Learning to like your own voice might be as feminist as writing in it. Mary Wollstonecraft, believing her life to be as interesting to her readers as her political tracts, published the letters that she sent home on a trip to Scandinavia; Virginia Woolf wrote five volumes of diaries; Simone de Beauvoir brought out four books of autobiography.

Unlike de Beauvoir, Levy doesn’t begin at the beginning; she begins, as Wollstonecraft had to, by imagining the future reader of her story. Things I Don’t Want to Know explored Levy’s childhood in South Africa, her teenage years in the London suburbs (her family immigrated to En­gland in 1968), and her life as a young mother. In The Cost of Living, Levy has left the marriage that seemed to be crumbling in Things I Don’t Want to Know and brings us scenes from a new life rather than a postmortem. The book opens a few winters ago with Levy traveling in South America. She is in Colombia, by the sea, eating coconut rice and fish. At the table beside her is an American in his forties talking to an En­glishwoman who is perhaps nineteen. “At first he did all the talking,” Levy writes. “After a while she interrupted him.” The story the En­glishwoman tells intrigues her: She had gone scuba diving in Mexico, and when she came to the surface after about twenty minutes she found that a storm had broken out. Shouldn’t someone have come to save her? The man shifts in his seat. “You talk a lot, don’t you?” he says. Levy sees something in the young woman that the American can’t: “She might not consider herself to be the minor character and him the major character.”

Much of Levy’s work features young women who refuse to accept the casting choices of our patriarchal society. In the play Pushing the Prince into Denmark (1991), she imagines a conversation between Gertrude and Ophelia in which the latter holds a great deal more power than she does in Shakespeare’s play. Gertrude offers Ophelia a ring, demanding that the younger woman smile—“and then you can have it.” Ophelia doesn’t move. “Smile,” she says, “and then I will take it.” Young women in Levy’s world are willing to talk back, to unsettle those who unsettle them. Levy imagines these women as sympathetic, if far from passive, listeners.

Of the American and the Englishwoman in Colombia, Levy writes that he “was the wrong reader for her story, but I thought on balance that she might be the right reader for mine.” Levy, nearing the end of her fifties, is writing her life not for her peers but for a new generation. Since we tend to speak of feminism as coming in waves, separated by generation gaps (most recently the supposed rift between millennials and baby boomers), we often focus on what divides women. What if instead we saw all women as trying to understand themselves as major characters in a society that will grant them only the status of minor ones?

In The Cost of Living, the Englishwoman’s story becomes a metaphor for Levy’s own: she was “swimming in the deep” for twenty years until she resurfaced and noticed the storm.

At first I wasn’t sure if I’d make it back to the boat and then I realized I didn’t want to make it back to the boat. . . . If we don’t believe in the future we are planning, the house we are mortgaged to, the person who sleeps by our side, it is possible that a tempest (long lurking in the clouds) might bring us closer to how we want to be in the world.

Her marriage was the boat, and “the best thing I ever did was not swim back to the boat. But where was I to go?” She has no choice but to leave the marital home, with its warm, book-lined study, Victorian bay window, and her daughters’ childhood fishing nets; but how to build a new intellectual and emotional life in a shabby apartment on a North London hill? The corridors are dark and lined with gray plastic, the heating doesn’t work, and the sink is blocked,

yet, to be making this kind of home, a space for a mother and her daughters, was so hard and humbling, profound and interesting, that to my surprise I found I could work very well in the chaos of this time.

Her books are in storage and her desk is now on the balcony, where she writes wrapped against the November cold in a coat, remembering her Emily Dickinson, her Audre Lorde, her Elena Ferrante. Scenes often turn on these references: we are with Levy in the damp, cold British winter until she remembers a thought, a phrase, and suddenly we are deep in the past.

If Levy imagines a younger woman listening to her, Levy in turn listens to an older woman. One of the writers she returns to most often is de Beauvoir. What she takes from her concerns the price of a woman’s bid for freedom. “To separate from love is to live a risk-free life,” Levy says, now husbandless and unsure whether she can risk herself again. “What’s the point of that sort of life?” De Beauvoir didn’t want to marry or have children, but she “knew that a life without love was a waste of time.” Levy wonders whether, like the drained fountain in her local park, she too has been “winterized” against emotion. When de Beauvoir fell in love with the writer Nelson Algren in her late thirties, he asked her to leave her other lovers behind, move to Chicago, and have a child with him, but she told him she couldn’t live “just for happiness and love. I could not give up writing and working in the only place where my writing and work may have meaning.” Levy sees this as an expensive choice: de Beauvoir knew that making the domestic idyll they had enjoyed in Chicago permanent “would cost her more than it would cost him. In the end she decided she couldn’t afford it.” What if that choice is also a way of hiding from the world, of not being brave enough to be open to its joys and disappointments? “It is obvious that femininity, as written by men and performed by women, was the exhausted phantom that still haunted the twenty-first century,” Levy writes, remembering The Second Sex. “What would it cost to step out of character and stop the story?”

Levy remembers this time as one in which she “did not feel safe or unsafe, but somewhere in between, liminal, passing from one life to another.” She lines her writing shed with kilim rugs and brings in a tiny Provencal-style stove; she goes to a party where she refuses to pass a canapé to a writer of military biography and is interrupted on the dance floor by a tigerlike kitten; she begins researching the Medusa myth; she pitches Swimming Home to film execs, realizing only afterward that there were three leaves muddily stuck to her hair. Can she live this way, without attachment?

Marguerite Duras provides the epigraph for the book—“You’re always more unreal to yourself than other people are”—and, when Levy’s mother is hospitalized, a further thought: “Our mothers always remain the strangest, craziest people we’ve ever met.” Lying back in her hospital bed, Levy’s mother can’t drink, but she can suck a popsicle. It becomes Levy’s task to buy two of her mother’s preferred flavor on her way to her daily visit. One day there is only bubblegum left, and Levy starts to shout at the Turkish brothers who run the shop. (“Why would anyone bother to make a bubblegum ice lolly, never mind sell it?”) But when she tells the story, her mother heaves with laughter, “and it is one of my favorite memories of our last days together.” Levy doesn’t tell the Turkish brothers why she needed two popsicles every day in deep winter, preferably lime or strawberry, until her mother dies in March. “If only you had told us . . . if you had said something we would have gone to the cash-and-carry and bought a ton for you,” they reply. She laughs, remembering the dreaded bubblegum, giving them permission to laugh, too. “I felt much better after I had explained things to the Turkish brothers, and in a way, I wish I had explained things more to the father of my children.” You can’t know who is willing to help you if you don’t speak up.

For all that The Cost of Living is in dialogue with Levy’s previous and future work, her foremothers and her heiresses, it is also trying to explain something to the man she left behind. She realizes she had stopped talking to him years before when she makes friends with Clara, an academic from South America in the UK on a fellowship.

She kept asking me questions. In my long marriage it was a relief to never be asked questions. At the time that suited me very well. There was so much I did not want to talk about.

Shakespeare resurfaces, by way of Hamlet’s reply to Polonius that he is just reading “words, words, words.” “Words,” Levy says, “can cover up everything that matters.” When she meets the father of her children at the end of the book in a café to discuss plans for Christmas, she is newly aware of what her words are saying, and what for a long time they have not been saying:

We discussed the news and talked about the weather. Not once did we mention the tempest that had sunk the boat. We were both still angry with each other, but we were calm and I was certainly bewildered by how I never found him boring. It was as if we had made a pact, from the moment we met, to know less about each other rather than more. I accepted this was the fatal flaw that tore us apart, and hoped that we would do better in this respect with other people.

Her marriage had descended into silence, like that into which Levy fell as a child; it took a total rupture for her to be able to speak again.

Some memoirs of divorce can seem as if they were written to vindicate the writer. As I came to the end of The Cost of Living, I started to feel that although the book isn’t explicitly about Levy’s marriage, it nevertheless manages to convey the decades of accumulated thought and experience that made her want a different life. So she is not so silent after all: those who are getting married this summer can hear her, her daughters—in blood and in literature—can hear her, and the father of her children can hear an explanation truer than the one used in court. Among the grounds for divorce in the UK are adultery, desertion, and unreasonable behavior, but these pale beside Levy’s doubts about whether a woman can be sovereign both in her writing and in someone else’s heart. In The Cost of Living it is as though Levy is trying to determine the price of losing her previous, orderly life from the vantage point of the gloriously chaotic new one. On one side: friendship, travel, writing, more time for her daughters. On the other: loneliness, grief, blocked pipes, and no one to point out the obvious.

A year after de Beauvoir left Chicago for the last time, she wrote to Algren about a dream she had, in which she told him that she “should be buried with your ring at my finger, which I intend to do.” She wears it now under the rosy marble gravestone she shares with Sartre in the Montparnasse Cemetery. “Your ring at my finger and your face in my heart as long as I live.” You can choose as purposefully as you like and still find something has been decided for you.

 is an editor at the London Review of Books. Her most recent essay for Harper’s Magazine, “Family Affairs,” appeared in the March issue.

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